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An Extraordinary, Ordinary Story

The sermon I preached this morning on Ruth 2 at Grace Chapel is available here.

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Blessed are the Hungry

Image“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matthew 5:6)

I’ve always felt this was one of the rawest of the Beatitudes, and hence one which has often been stirred up in my heart. “Hunger and thirst” is no half-hearted language. Jesus isn’t talking about that 11:30am growl in your stomach or that midnight hankering for ice cream. It is a blessing on people who are aching, starving for something – for righteousness Matthew tells us, although Luke simply has Jesus blessing those “who are hungry now.” It is a blessing on the stomach twisting up on its own emptiness, a dust-choked throat and a swollen tongue. It is a curious blessing indeed.

What does it mean, to hunger and thirst after righteousness? It means first of all to make God’s ways our desires. This is the primary preacherly application, but it is true even so.  It means that the gaping pit in our stomach is our sin, and that we long to replace it with the meat and potatoes of Christian discipleship. Jesus blesses longing for virtue, for obedience, for faithfulness in the face of temptation. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness defines our diet; it is passing on the sugar-puffed dainties of worldly vanity and the arsenic-laced morsels of sin because our appetite is for the hearty and heady fare of Christlikeness instead. We must desire to be conformed to His image; we must long for it like the man stumbling across sand dunes longs for a sip of water.

Yet if this is a part of the answer, the part we all nod knowingly to, it is only a part. Hungering and thirsting call us to consider their object, but also its absence. Those who Jesus blesses in the beatitude are not the satisfied but the starving. His promise is not for those who have arrived but for those who feel the weight of the journey. Jesus has no use for people who do not crave holiness, but neither does he cherish those who believe they have achieved it. Jesus is blessing those people, people like us, who fall short, who fail regularly, who hang their heads and beat their breasts and beg for mercy. Continue reading

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Who Sits Beyond the Sun?

The sermon I preached on Ecclesiastes 6 at Grace Church in Fremont on August 5 is available here.

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All Dressed Up with Nothing To Say

I grew up in an evangelicalism which was unapologetically hostile to cultural engagement and participation. My high school friends and I spent hours debating whether we could listen to “secular” music and watch R-rated movies. There was a whole industry built around this idea, one which wrote songs and produced books and films which sought to mirror the forms of the surrounding world while purging them of any “worldliness” (often marketed by corporations with motivations not similarly purged). The closest I came to true cultural engagement in this bubble was reading a magazine by an unnamed Christian organization which assessed television and cinema based on how often they used words easily abbreviated by single letters. Interestingly, the most profound impact said magazine had on me was inspiring a months-long search to surreptitiously find out what the “c-word” was.

However, while this was my experience in my early teenaged years, the waters for me and for much of evangelicalism have irrevocably shifted. Through the influence of thinkers like Francis Schaeffer, publications like Mars Hill Audio and Relevant magazine and books full of words like “missionality” and “transformationalism,” I and many people around me started to realize that this ghettoized approach to culture was not something Jesus required of us. Indeed, it was detrimental to the cause of Christ.

We follow an incarnate Savior who ate with sinners and dialoged with intellectuals. The apostle Paul quotes Greek philosophers, Jude references non-canonical texts, and Proverbs gladly borrows wisdom from the Egyptians. As Augustine put it, “A person who is a good and true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found.” What’s more, the broader culture was not just a sphere to distill truths from, but also a stage on which the gospel can be performed. We could enter into the world as witnesses to Christ, taking every thought captive for His glory. We could disciple nations and cultures; we could stand before Ceasar and witness for Christ.

I say all of this up front because I still very much believe in this calling. We are not Gnostics only concerned with souls or solipsists only concerned with individuals’ internal lives. Christianity is the proclamation of a kingdom, a kingdom which is right now pressing against the gates of this world and will one day topple them. However, I can’t help feeling like the shifting waters which carried me out of Christian isolationism have for too many of the people who joined me in this exodus overflowed the other bank.

Some examples: I still occasionally read the “missional” publications, and for all their insistence on dialoging with culture what I see is instead simply applauding it. I hear lectures about finding God in “Sex and the City”, horror movies and mass-market hip-hop, but after having found God there no one seems to notice the sexual scars, splatter porn and glorified thuggery which surrounds Him. I try to have conversations about art or music or best-selling novels and discover that, while they’ve all read them instead of avoiding them, most of my Christian friends are still equally unable to wrestle with them in a cruciform way. Put simply, what I think we have lost is any sense of cultural critique.

I understand that part of this is simply a reaction to being told something that was once wrong is now okay. Teetotallers turn into drunks far more often than wine-lovers and beer-sippers once they’re told they’re allowed to have a pint or two. Many of my friends seem to have an angry little fundamentalist minister on their shoulders still chastising them for their worldly pursuits, and they’re doing everything possible to avoid considering he might be just a little bit right. The problem is, while it was a call for cultural engagement that set us free from a moralistic avoidance mentality, cultural engagement has too easily been replaced by acculturation.

Put another way, the whole reason Christians ought to be engaged with culture is so that we can challenge it, remake it, and (at times) bear prophetic witness against it. We, like our Savior, are meant to walk in the world as witnesses to a greater world to come. To be in it but not of it. Instead, it seems like what started as putting on our suits to get in the door has turned into an attempt to blend into the crowd. We are, as it were, all dressed up with nothing to say.

A few particular points might clarify my concerns. First, we’ve misunderstood the nature of entering the cultural conversation. We’ve argued, rightly, that a conversation requires us to listen to and understand what the culture is saying. However, it is then our responsibility to talk back. We need to know the language and stories of this world, but only so that we can tell our own story back and show that it is greater than this world has ever imagined. We need to affirm those truths that belong to God, but we also need to challenge the errors. The whole point of finding God in the world is as a first step in helping the world find God.

Take, for example, the way we engage with art. Contra the isolationists, it is good and Godly to engage the cultural artifacts that populate the world around us. We should seek to understand artists and what they are doing, and we should admire the talents God has given (some of) them in producing works of great skill and beauty. However, if we stand in the gallery and sip our wine and nod appreciatively and then go home, we have only finished the first half of our calling – and a calling half done isn’t really done at all. It is only once we have brought Christ to bear that we have lived out the in-but-not-of life of the kingdom. Until we have said “That is truth, and look where it points!” or “Yes I see, but what about…?” or “I don’t think that’s quite right,” we have not engaged culture; we have only capitulated to it.

A second way we’ve gone off the rails is in confusing cultural engagement with consumerism and entertainment. I remember reading an interview with a group of Christians, many former adult entertainers themselves, who felt called to conduct outreach to members of the pornography industry. The interviewer asked these missionaries whether they struggled with sexual temptation in this setting and the response of one member of the group was something like “occasionally; but mostly Jesus doesn’t let me look at them that way.” Those brothers and sisters recognized what we often fail to; that the only way to engage with culture for Christ is to refuse to consume it on its own terms. You can’t evangelize porn stars while still treating them like porn stars; you cannot engage culture while making your primary aim to be entertained by it.

This, I think, often explains why so many Christians bristle at any attempt to seriously critique the world. We have not moved toward the culture missionally, hoping to change it; instead we have raced towards it hungrily, eager to stuff our faces with its desserts. We have moved from an unconditional “no” to an unconditional “yes.” However, neither of these answers is really allowable. To get uncomfortably specific, if you read The Hunger Games, or 50 Shades of Gray, or The Unbearable Lightness of Being in order to understand and critique them, or communicate more clearly with those who have read them, more power to you. If you read them for the excitement of kids killing each other, quasi-BDSM experimentation or continuous adultery, we have a problem. And given that second list, reading them purely for “fun” should raise a few eyebrows. We can biblically justify seeking to be culturally aware and engaged; we cannot justify being culturally entertained.

One last reality I feel more and more: we have confused cultural engagement with cultural acceptance. I cannot count the number of times that I have heard language of relevance and engagement used by some believers to critique brothers who are being perfectly engaged and relevant and simply saying things people don’t want to hear. It is no accident that Jesus starts His ministry talking in riddles and gets puzzled looks, and ends it speaking clearly and getting crucified. Being culturally relevant is replacing the old insistence that “thou art transgressing God’s decrees” with the clearer “you are giving the king of the universe the middle finger”; it is not a stammered “we’re all fine here now thanks… how are you?” We are to engage with culture to make the beauty and the offense of the gospel clearer, not to make them invisible.

One of the great pieces of our Christian heritage is the insistence that we are “aliens” and “sojourners” in the sinful system of culture and power that Scripture calls “the world.” In the model of Christ, we are called to be a part of the world around us; indeed, like Christ, we are to long for its resurrection. I will gladly insist on this reality against those who seek to partition off the Savior’s kingdom, to only give Him hearts and souls and not also offer Him bodies and communities and cultures and kingdoms. However, we cannot forsake the fundamentally alien nature of our engagement. We are not called to live – we cannot live – as natives. We cannot forget that right now our King sits in heaven, and that this world will not be our home until He brings heaven down to earth. Until that day, our task is to stand as prophetic heralds, embracing God’s truth and opposing and critiquing all that would set up against it. 

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Seeking a Heart of Praise

Anyone interested in the sermon I preached on Psalm 104 at Grace Chapel this morning can find it here. (They’re quite impressive with how quickly they get the mp3 up!) It is always a joy to share God’s word with our GC family.

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Why the Religious Right (and Left) Can’t Succeed

Note: I owe a lot of this thinking to a recent book I picked up which I found helpful in distilling issues of Christianity and culture: To Change the World by James Davison Hunter.

With a title like that, I’m sure you’re all expecting me to say something inflammatory.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, as I interact with Christians’ attempts to influence and shape culture (the true aim of both the religious poles – politics is merely an outworking of this), I think there are some fundamental misunderstandings of culture which result in misguided attempts to change it.

Both Christian liberals and conservatives buy into what we might call the “democracy myth” of culture. This myth supposes that culture is just an amalgamation of the beliefs most people share in common – as if everyone votes their worldview, and the one with the most ballots in the box ends up setting the agenda. Thus, engaging in a “culture war” primarily consist of convincing people to think correct things and then live out what they believe.

While I’m all for right thinking and right living, the democracy myth is patently false when it comes to approaching culture. It is much more complicated, in three ways. First, culture is not monolithic. Rather, it is a set of overlapping circles, some closer to the center and some to the fringe. The areas in which they overlap form shared beliefs, values and influences, but no two circles in America share everything in common. Thus, while certain cultural forces are represented in a variety of cultures (i.e. the New York Times, some genres of music), each of these cultural circles also have unique forces at work. Because this is the case, simply being a voice in a part of culture in no way guarantees that your voice will be heard in culture as a whole.

Second, cultures do less to instill specific beliefs than they do to erect plausibility structures – frameworks of thought in which certain beliefs are easier or harder to hold. There is a remarkable diversity of specific convictions within any given culture. Every human being is rife with contradictions. It is not that they live in the culture and wake up one day to discover that they’ve become convinced to change one of those beliefs. Rather, within this diversity, not all beliefs seem created equal. Some make sense to people, and some seem more and more unbelievable. It is this “sensibleness” which culture creates.

Third, culture is shaped by the interaction of cultural conservatism and cultural antagonism. When a voice seeks to speak into or challenge culture, one of two things can happen which could end up keeping the voice from being heard. On the one hand, if the voice is too similar to the dominant culture, the conservative nature of the culture will work to co-opt that voice; to use what it says to reaffirm the values of the culture it is speaking into, even if the voice would vehemently disagree with some of those values. On the other hand, if the voice is too different, it will fail to get a hearing in the culture at all. It will so violate its plausibility structure that it will be rejected out of hand. However, this antagonism doesn’t simply result in the voice being ignored. Rather, since values are defined in part by the other – by what they oppose or what they are not – such extreme voices will actually serve to drive the culture in the opposite direction. Thus, trying to change culture often results in it becoming even more deeply established, either by being used to prop up its views or to serve as the other to those views.

When defined in this way, I think it becomes clear why most Christian attempts to affect culture fail. We might categorize the normal modes of Christian interaction into two groups: opposition from without and relevance from within. Many groups end up using a combination of these two strategies, but they are clearly present – and neither of them can affect how culture actually functions.

The problems with the  “opposition from without” model manifest in all three of the spheres I mentioned above. First, it tends to view culture as something monolithic (and which it is outside). Thus, it often goes after a part of culture as if it was the whole thing, failing to see the complexity and gear its critique toward areas of overlap. Second, and more importantly, it tries to change beliefs without recognizing the plausibility structure in which they function. It doesn’t matter how many arguments you make or laws you change. If cultural forces do not work to make these arguments and laws believable to the people interacting with them, they are doomed to fail. The result of this failure is not just being ineffective, either. Rather, since those opposing culture from without tend to be the voices which culture is antagonistic to, they often become bogeymen used to scare people into going in the opposite direction – to affirm more strongly the very things that Christians want them to change.

However, this is in no way an argument for the “relevance from within” model. It fails on all three counts as well. It tends to be incredibly naive about cultural diversity, and so seeks to speak to “culture” by anchoring itself in one tiny circle, often speaking primarily in the unique areas of that circle rather than in those that overlap. What’s more, it tends to be incredibly naive about how plausibility structures work. It often leaps into such structures thinking that they can be adopted wholesale while still holding the right beliefs, only to discover ten or twenty years later that nobody holds those beliefs anymore because they seem, well, unbelievable. As a result, the relevance paradigm ends up being co-opted and used to make culture even more established, rather than moving it in the direction its proponents desire.

So with all that gloom and doom, we might be wondering, what should we do? I’m going to save that discussion for a post next week. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is this an adequate view of culture? Is there another paradigm of engagement you can see which addresses these problems?

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McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity (6) – That Incompetent, Subtle Conspiracy

I’ve always loved film noir movies. One of the things I enjoy most is their complex, twisting plots. While there’s all sorts of tools to develop these plots and catch the audience off guard, perhaps my favorite is the character revelation. You find out some hitherto-unknown fact about a character in the film, and your entire read on who they are and what they’re doing changes. You come to understand that there has been an underlying motive to their choices. Their seemingly-random actions, their quirks and inconsistencies, suddenly make perfect (and often chilling) sense.

I’ve mentioned at several points in my discussion of McLaren’s book that there is an underlying motive which keeps him from accepting the answers most Christians have to his objections. As Brian sets out to answer the question “What is the gospel?” the motive finally becomes explicit: Brian wants a completely religiously-inclusive Christianity, a kingdom of God which everyone, Christian or Muslim or mystic, can aspire to. “A new kingdom is much bigger than a new religion, and in fact it has room for many religious traditions within it.” (Lest anyone feels that his quote is taken out of context and only means other Christian traditions, I’ll tip my hand a little: Brian is going to make this inclusivism explicit in chapter 19, so I’m assuming he means the same thing here.)

The reason I bring this up now is because it is the only way I can understand his conclusions in these chapters. McLaren says the evangelical gospel is “justification by grace through faith,” and then proceeds to talk as if the idea that the gospel was actually the “good news of the kingdom” was something which no Christians up to this point, or at least very few of them, had ever heard. Like many of his critiques, there is a certain popular-level appeal to this one: many Christians do have a simplistic view of the gospel. But there has always been in Christianity a robust strain of theological reflection which has emphasized the resurrection, serving God in this world, the new heavens and the new earth. Granted, they used slightly different language. Also granted, heaven and hell aren’t completely absent in their thinking, as they seem to be in McLaren’s. But to accuse them of being unaware of the importance of the kingdom or its this-worldly impact is nonsensical. Indeed, it seems odd to me that Brian would in the same book decry the long history of Christian involvement in the political sphere because of their (this-worldly) agenda for political change and then claim that Christians have only ever cared about heaven or hell and refused involvement in advancing the kingdom of heaven. It’s like arguing that a political party is oafish and incompetent, and also has an elaborate conspiracy to subtly destroy the country. You can’t have it both ways. Continue reading

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